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December 6, 2007

A moral dilemma— ‘No Country for Old Men’

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/a_moral_dilemma_no_country_for_old_men_20071207

The world is rapidly changing. Whether it be the greedy nature of mankind or the constantly upgraded weaponry, the world is evolving for better or for worse. This idea sets up the mainframe for the highly acclaimed new feature film, "No Country for Old Men," a film that not only delves into the depths of human nature, but also poses a serious question: Do we, as human beings, have the capability to prevail against the evil way in which the world often works? The complex dilemma that is at the center of this film not only provokes thought, but also raises questions about what it means to be a Jew, and for that matter, what it means to be a human being.

The film is based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same title (spoiler alert -- this analysis reveals details about the story's end). While the movie stays fairly true to its original source, it is the directors' unique use of stylish cinematography and attention to detail that make the film such a mind-boggling piece of art. It is directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (often referenced as "The Coen Brothers"), Jewish siblings whose renowned films range from bizarrely comedic -- such as "The Big Lebowski" and "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- to psychologically dramatic, such as "Barton Fink" and "Fargo." It is rather evident that "No Country" belongs in the latter of these two categories.

The film is about a man named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong near the Rio Grande. He decides to keep the loot and returns to his trailer park home. Unfortunately, the party in search of the missing cash finds out that Llewelyn is responsible for its absence and hires Anton Chigurh (Anthony Bardem) to hunt him down. What follows is an extremely intense game of cat and mouse. However, even though Moss and Chigurh have the most screen time, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the most essential character in comprehending the film's overall meaning.

Bell is an aging police officer who is not only attempting to resolve the situation and protect Moss from the mess he has gotten himself into, but also is beginning to feel as if the world today is no place for a man of his kind (thus the title, "No Country for Old Men"). Toward the end of the film, Bell finds himself in a situation where he can finally catch Chigurh. Instead, he allows Chigurh to flee. One would assume that Bell's neglecting to even attempt to prevent Chigurh's escape was due to his realization that he could not change the way the world had become. He felt that even if he were to catch Chigurh, it wouldn't correct the world of violence. People would continue to commit horrendous crimes, and there is nothing he could do about it. Soon after this, Bell retires. He basically gives up on humanity. This then poses the question: Is there any chance of reforming the inhumane ways in which the world now works, or did Bell make the right choice in giving up on mankind? The answer is, presumably, that Bell did indeed make the wrong decision.

Bell's choice has tragic results: Chigurh continues to live and viciously destroy innocent life without obstacles in his path. Not even a severe car accident (toward the film's conclusion) prevents him from continuing his existence filled with tremendous sin. In essence, giving up completely eliminates the possibility of repair. This idea is not only the essential idea of the film, but is also extremely important in understanding the principals of Judaism and tikkun olam.

The fundamental ideas of being a Jew revolve around helping others and performing good deeds. If Jews were suddenly to decide to give up on humanity and discontinue their performance of mitzvot with the assumption that the world is hopeless, the results would be similar to the result of the film. Without the performance of kindness, the world will be doomed with permanent misery.

It may be exceedingly difficult to fathom the idea of the world changing. Whether it be by combating crime, poverty or sickness, one must do everything one can to ensure that humankind never falls into oblivion. However, it is extraordinarily important that people understand that the world cannot completely be changed. Evil will always exist and never be completely eliminated. All we can do is continue to perform mitzvot and participate in the world of kindness. Though this will not completely alter the way the world works, it will certainly prevent the world from ever becoming hopeless. These ideals of everlasting hope are the very strings that hold society together.

Jason Berger is in the 11th grade at the Communication Arts program at Hamilton High School.

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